Between notorious ASUU and ‘incompetent’ FG
by Mahmud Zukogi
‘‘ASUU found out that those who were sent there simply didn’t know their right from their left.’’ –Senator David Mark
I dare not call nor see the Federal government as notorious, even if it is notoriously so. I can however stare my union in the face and refer to it as hopelessly notorious, even as it is not. My union is notorious for insisting on the implementation of an agreement that was signed between it and the Federal government in October 2009, after long tortuous meetings and deliberations that spanned over two years. For insisting on the sanctity of this document and calling out its members for a strike action to press for its implementation, my union is implacably notorious. The history of the struggle between ASUU and the Federal government has come a long way and no newspaper space can adequately do justice in recounting it in a single write-up. It is however a history that Nigerian university graduates from the late seventies onwards can recall in their own different ways. The President and his deputy, even as they are comfortably cocooned off from the assaulting sights of our beleaguered ivory towers, can tell what the struggle was, and still is, between the university academics and the Federal government. They can choose to feign ignorance of this history now because of the exigencies of office and pretend that they need to be briefed or brought into the picture of things. Whether or not this is deliberate, political office holders, from the representatives, senators and members, governors and the highest pinnacle, the President, seemed to have entrenched a culture of selective amnesia or historical erasure. While some of them are pretentiously nostalgic about this past, others are downrightly irreconcilable with it.
It is this culture of selective amnesia that has unfortunately served as a perpetual cog in the wheel of our nation’s drive to progress. It is easy and infinitely escapist for the entire nation to dismiss ASUU as too academic in its approach to issues; a picture which government always paint of the union. This angle of the union’s unceasing notoriety was recently and surprisingly espoused by no less a person than Dr Jibrin Ibrahim, a former ASUU activist, but who unfortunately left the university as a result of some of the issues the union is still fighting till today. The piece was anchored on ASUU’s fixation on strikes as the only option to ventilate its anger over government’s failure to honour its obligations to it and the union’s perceived weakened moral stand to fight. It is instructive to note that the union has significantly shifted from the stoic picture he painted. If the union had died at the time he left the university, the story would have been different today. The story of the 90s was the most titanic as the union was faced with the hydra-headed monsters of the IMF and World Bank’s sold strategy of tacit privatization and commercialization of university education. Although that angle was doubtlessly countered by the union, it is still resurfacing in different manifestations today. There probably would have been no public universities today, the selling point being that government’s attention should be focused on the provision of vocational education and that those who cannot afford university education have no business being there. And for fighting this glaring sabotage consistently, ASUU is accused of being too academic and stoic. It is doubtful if the universities would have gained the little they had thus far without the union’s consistent struggles and strikes. If the union had not fought the IMF/World Bank’s so-called strategic plan championed by the then Minister of Education, the now visibly reinvented and sober Madam Oby Ezekwesili, the public universities would have ended the way of PHCN today, sold to the same grand masters of our economic underdevelopment and misery. The truth is, more than any other time, the long tortuous journey which culminated in the signing of the now contentious 2009 agreement and subsequent struggles to get it off the ground has seen the union climbing down from its hitherto high pedestal of academic vain gloriousness to a cultivated but cultured diplomacy. It is this shift in paradigm that ultimately gave birth to the January 2012 Memorandum of Understanding between it and the Federal government. Dr Jibrin’s conversation was no doubt done in good faith, coming from someone with an informed pedigree, but was completely oblivious of this history, having been away from the system for a long time. Any wonder his conversation harped consistently on some familiar ethical issues. Unfortunately, these ethical issues are invariably linked to the serial rot and decay the universities suffer from and which is at the core of ASUU’s agitation. If the university system is properly funded and the right working environment enabled, I doubt if some of these ethical issues will be allowed to stay. In fact, most of it will fizzle out naturally. With the right environment and tools provided, and the necessary checks and balances activated, so many characters that do not possess the wherewithal to be in the system will be too exposed to the search lights of the checks and balances to remain. In fact, the issue of handouts which Dr Jibrin mentioned has greatly been phased out in most universities. At least, in the last ten years or so, Bayero University, Kano and several other universities have been able to successfully contain the hand-out culture. In this age of ICT, the internet, online journals and e-libraries, I doubt if any serious academic will contemplate giving students hand-outs. If there are still cases of this menace, most of it will be found in new wonder universities who rely solely on visiting staff.
If Dr Jibrin was more courteous and tactical in drawing his former colleagues’ attention to the need for a rethinking of strategy, others were not. Most of the recent treatises on the ongoing ASUU strike were largely doses of stock venom against the union for its seemingly holier than thou attitude. The most shocking of the arguments is why the union would see it as its sole responsibility to salvage the university education. The strength of their arguments is not on whether the union is right on insisting on its 2009 agreement with the government as encapsulated in the January 2012 MOU, but on its blatant refusal to listen to all entreaties to call off the strike while government continue to procrastinate on whether to implement or not implement the terms and principles of the memorandum of understanding. In other words, why would it be only ASUU, of all the labour unions, that will be far removed from reality as to pretend not to understand the language of government; a language that everybody speaks and understands with uncommon skill? In this category are Hakeem Baba Ahmed and Idang Alibi and a host of others. Baba Ahmed was rather hypothetical in his presentation. In other words, he argued that the union could cling on to its grand standing of self righteousness in its fight for the implementation of the 2009 agreement, despite the ground swell of perceived public outrage against it and pray that its doggedness paid off. Otherwise, in his argument, the union may ultimately succumb to the mounting pressure for it to call off the strike, having made its point but not getting what it fought for. In which case, ASUU will go down psychologically broken and will never be able to elicit public sympathy again in its future call for action. Baba Ahmed’s submission on the issue was clearly an ambivalent one. Much as the union is harping on the sanctity of its agreement and the genuineness of its cause, then it should go the whole hog to fight to the end. Otherwise, if it succumb to pressure from the traditional government pressure groups to call off the strike without achieving its basic demands, it will be difficult for it to truncate lectures and academic sessions for another round of strike without incurring the wrath of both the students and the public. On the other hand, Idang Alibi’s treatise on the strike was virulent in its attack of ASUU as notorious and unbending. The piece was compulsively bellicose and reeks of anger and hate for a union that was purposely positioned to disrupt the peace of the Jonathan’s government and its seemingly succeeding transformation agenda. As if the union was embarking on strike for the first time in its life, and was doing so to spite the president and distract his attention from the more serious national issues. For this, Idang was not pretentious about his intention to call the dog a bad name in order to hang it. ASUU was clearly in the wrong for popping up from nowhere to think it must have all its over two decades old issues resolved today. His write-up was clearly a hatchet man’s job and it fell flat on its face especially because the lines were so obviously cheap and banal. Since his write-up and others in that category, ASUU strike and its impact has grown from strength to strength. Not only has the strike become a topical national discourse, the union met thrice with the Vice President, and as I put finishing touches to this piece, it is meeting with the President.
The current strike, as with most previous ones, was clearly an avoidable one. The history of the 2009 agreement dates back to 2007 when the union pressed for the renegotiation of the 2002 agreement. The clause in the agreement is that it will be renegotiated after every three years. This was not done at its due date in 2005 despite all efforts by the union to get the Obasanjo administration to do so. The then Minister of Education, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili had some funny ideas from the IMF/World Bank which she was already selling to the Government Unity Schools and was warming up to visit that on the universities in the name of phased strategic plan for the university system. She made sure she frustrated all efforts to kick start the renegotiation process up till the end of tenure of President Obasanjo. When the late Umaru Musa Yar’adua, the Lecturer-President came on board, he met with ASUU leadership to give him time to settle down. It was not until after a long drawn agitation, countless correspondences and lobby to concerned stake-holders which included members of the national assembly that Yar’adua finally set up a renegotiation team under the chairmanship of the then Pro-chancellor and chairman of council of the University of Ibadan, Deacon Gamaliel Onosode representing the government team. Of course ASUU’s team was headed by the then national President, Dr Abdullahi Sule Kano. The renegotiation process dragged for nearly two years and the draft agreement signed by Onosode and Professor Ukachukwu Awuzie who succeeded Sule-Kano. It took the government yet another six months before it could see reason to set up the implementation committee under Mr Wale Babalakin, SAN. It is instructive to note that it was this 2009 agreement that was negotiated by eminent Nigerians, professionals in different fields, that were dismissed as incompetent by the Senate President in a statement that was not anywhere near the familiar Freudian slips. The statement by the Senate President, much as it was an unintended slight on these Nigerians, was the height of government’s tacit intention to jettison an agreement it willingly signed with ASUU in 2009. Whether or not he realizes it, Senator David Mark, in the last senate plenary session on ASUU strike, spoke the mind of government which the union read early in the day by insisting on its sanctity and implementation. The push by the union to pressure for its implementation led to what was unanimously thought to be a common ground in the form of the Memorandum of University signed in January 2012.
Now by insisting that the terms and principles of the MOU be respected in terms of the quantum of funds needed to revitilize our university system and redirect it to a new journey of rebirth and global competitiveness, ASUU was accused as notorious and unbending. And therefore, it was this script that was sold to the public, the media and willing undertakers like Idang Alibi whose heroes reside not in the hot suffocating lecture rooms but in the cosy corridors of power. Fortunately, it is this famed notoriety of ASUU that has provided the relative changes that we see taking place in our universities today. It is yet this famed notoriety and doggedness of the union that inspired it to throw back the ‘take it or leave it’ offer given by the Minister of Finance and coordinating Minister of the economy. In lending his irrepressible voice on the provoked round of strike, Femi Falana, SAN, accused government that is complaining of lack of funds to power the ASUU agreement for subsidizing corruption in the name of fuel subsidy in the region of trillions of naira. In his submission, he employed ‘‘the federal government to urgently reorder its priority and provide adequate funds to restore the lost glory of our universities to enable ASUU to call off its strike.’’ It is hoped that as the President meets with the ASUU leadership, he will take off his hat of power and see the need to do what is right, even if that is going to disrupt the powers that have been sitting on the path to a holistic revitalization of our university system.
Mahmud Zukogi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org